APEX Insight: Akbar Al Baker is involved in every aspect of Qatar Airways. He doesn’t just wear the title of CEO; he gets hands-on.
As an airline boasting one of the youngest fleets, Qatar Airways is always on the cutting edge of aviation. The Gulf carrier was the first to fly Airbus’ latest aircraft, the A350 XWB; was one of the first to adopt the superjumbo A380; and is set to be the launch customer of Boeing’s 777X. Marching to the drum of Akbar Al Baker’s leadership, in less than two decades, Qatar Airways has grown rapidly – a vastly different picture from when the airline first took flight.
Despite being founded in 1993 by Qatari royalty, Qatar Airways had humble beginnings. Under the direction of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, The Father Emir of Qatar, the airline consisted of just four aircraft serving a handful of regional routes. It wasn’t until Sheikh Hamad had a vision of Qatar Airways becoming a leading international carrier with the highest standards of service and excellence that things started to shake up.
To realize this vision, Sheikh Hamad appointed Akbar Al Baker. A Doha-born civil servant with experience at various levels of the Civil Aviation Directorate and Qatar Tourism Authority, he also had several years of experience as a businessman and held a private pilot’s license. In 1997, when Al Baker stepped into his role as CEO, Qatar Airways was relaunched and the airline prepared to take off.
Twenty years later, Qatar is thriving. The airline’s initial fleet has multiplied from four to more than 160 aircraft (with upward of 300 additional aircraft on order), and with 150 destinations and counting, its sprawling route network appears to be boundless. “I would prefer to expand even faster,” Al Baker told Kamahl Santamaria, a news anchor from Al Jazeera, during the Dubai Airshow last year, “but my biggest problem is to get enough aircraft in the time frame that I’m looking for.”
Not one to mince words, Al Baker isn’t afraid to publicly shame aircraft manufacturers. He has been upfront about production problems and delivery delays, on the part of both Airbus and Boeing. The airline was scheduled to be the launch customer of the Airbus A320neo, but this past June, Qatar canceled the order of its first A320neo owing to delays – and more aircraft were called off after that. Al Baker was not about to stand by for another delay. In October, Qatar Airways announced an order for $11.7 billion worth of Boeing jets, with a letter of intent for sixty 737 MAX 8s, an aircraft the airline had not previously purchased. Media speculated that the option for the narrow-body twin-engine jet, which has a similar profile to the A320neo, was a replacement for the canceled Airbus aircraft.
When it comes to expanding Qatar Airways’ route network, Al Baker would like to fly to more cities in Australia, the US, Africa and the Middle East. By the end of the year, a total of 14 new destinations, including Los Angeles, Ras Al Khaimah, Sydney, Marrakech, Pisa, Windhoek and Helsinki, will be served.
But of all the places he’d like to grow, Al Baker calls the Indian subcontinent his “favorite region.” As a child, he studied at St. Peter’s all-boys boarding school, perched in the Panchgani hills in Maharashtra, India. The region is known for its cluster of elite boarding schools and strawberry fields, with the closest city, Pune, located 63 miles away. Later, Al Baker moved to Mumbai to attend the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics. And according to Forbes India, he still keeps an apartment his parents bought him during that time, in the posh Cuffe Parade neighborhood.
India may hold nostalgia for Al Baker as the place where he came of age, but the country has also become the fastest-growing domestic air travel market. Hoping to capitalize on the economic potential, Al Baker has repeatedly expressed interest in buying a stake in IndiGo, the largest carrier in the country and the third-largest low-cost carrier in Asia. The acquisition would help to put pressure on his fellow Gulf competitors, Etihad and Emirates, which count the Mumbai-based Jet Airways as a codeshare partner.
In the meantime, Al Baker’s recent activities demonstrate he’s also looking to expand elsewhere. In the months before the Brexit referendum, Qatar Airways upped its stake twice in International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia and Vueling. Post-referendum, the stake was raised to 20 percent – a series of moves meant to drive passenger traffic to Qatar Airways’ hub in Doha.
Welcome to Qatar
Hamad International Airport, home of Qatar Airways since 2014, is a joint vision of Al Baker and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. The airport is set to transform Qatar’s aviation landscape from the ground up, spanning a whopping 8.5 square miles – a third of the size of Doha itself. And with further plans to construct Airport City, a complex of hotels and offices, that would add another half square mile, roughly, to the airport’s footprint. At the center of both developments is Al Baker, who is group chief executive of Hamad International.
“I am very much hands-on and involve myself in all aspects of the company.” – Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways
There doesn’t seem to be a division of Qatar’s aviation industry that Al Baker isn’t active in. In addition to being the CEO of Qatar Airways, he is CEO of Qatar Executive, Qatar Aviation Services, Qatar Aircraft Catering Company, Qatar Distribution Company, Qatar Duty Free and Internal Media Services. “I am very much hands-on and involve myself in all aspects of the company, no matter how small the details are,” he explained when he was named 2005 Airline Personality of the Year.
Within a few years, Hamad International is expected to process 50 million passengers a year. The airport has all the markers of a modern transport hub – conceptual motif (aquatic), living plants (desert species), contemporary art (Urs Fischer’s $6.8-million Untitled [Lamp/Bear]) and an element of sustainability (recycled water irrigation). And the experience of luxury, which Qatar Airways has become a symbol of, hasn’t been spared from the Al Mourjan Business Lounge, which houses a calming water feature and softly lit rooms for video games, nursing and praying. The airport also hosts Doha city tours for passengers on long layovers.
Al Baker is passionate about putting Qatar on the world stage. “What is very important is that we are really showcasing what my country Qatar is to provide to the traveling public,” he says. “What we do really is the best, and you can see that in the first eight months of opening Hamad International: we already received recognition as the best airport in the Middle East.”
By next year, Qatar Airways will have proved it’s on the cutting edge once again with the launch of a new business-class cabin that will see nearly everything, including aircraft seating, designed from scratch. And, as with all things Qatar Airways, it can be expected that the product will represent what Al Baker has described as “Qataris’ love of perfection and quality.”
“We don’t often mention it, but we have one individual who is involved very closely with everything we do … and that’s our chief executive officer,” said Rossen Dimitrov, senior vice-president, Customer Experience, Qatar Airways, during this year’s Future Travel Experience Global in Las Vegas, when presenting on the airline’s customer service philosophy. “Whether we do a menu design or a cabin design, or we’re working a particular project, he always finds the time to participate and work with us. Whether we introduce something as simple as a new type of bread in the aircraft, he comes to the menu presentation to ensure that this bread will meet our requirements and it’s what our customers expect.”
The admiration seems to be reciprocal. “It is very important to rely on people you can trust in order to run any successful company,” Al Baker said in an interview with Emerald Group. “It is through a lot of hard work and determination, as well as a group of extremely committed and driven employees, that Qatar Airways has reached the status it enjoys today.”
This article was originally published in the 6.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.